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How Far Can Business And Altruism Go Before They Diverge?

Or are they even mutually exclusive concepts in the first place?


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Dr Joel Yong

3 years ago | 5 min read

We like altruistic people. The people who are selflessly serving their communities and doing the necessary but unsung work in keeping those communities running. We always get warm and fuzzy feelings when we hear stories of altruism.

But what is altruism? Altruism, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is defined as:

the attitude of caring about others and doing acts that help them although you do not get anything by doing those acts.

So ideally, we’d wish that everyone around us was behaving in an altruistic manner. We like that kind of behaviour from people around us.

Unfortunately, we do tend to make similar assumptions about businesses too, and that is a fatal flaw in our reasoning.

One example: The humble Uber driver.

In a past incarnation of my life, I was making a living zipping around town as an Uber driver. (More about that in my reflections here.)

The problem is that an Uber driver is, according to Uber, an independent contractor (even though various states such as California are trying to get them re-classified differently).

As such, it means that I can take whatever request that comes my way, and I can decline whatever that I don’t like.

I bear all the operating costs (car upkeep, fuel, maintenance, commercial licensing and insurance), and what Uber does is that it takes a cut of the fare as its commission for allowing me access to use their app, and whatever I do keep as my revenue is used for my expenses and such.

I first started out as an innocent driver. Accept every request, pick people up, drop them off, and head off to the next trip. Rather altruistic, if you could say so. Why?

Because taxi drivers tend to refuse short fares in most major cities. They’re the ones who started screening passengers for profitability.

Of course, when Uber’s fares were good, there was no reason to decline short trips. But then when they unilaterally started slashing fares with zero input from the drivers, would that altruism last long?

No, because every driver is allowed access to the app as an independent contractor.

It became a game of screening and surge hunting. I was always showing an altruistic side of myself for whomever I picked up…

But I was only altruistic because the price was right — because I was in it for the business, not the altruism.

If I did pick up an airport fare at 2.5x of the usual price, I’d gladly assist in the loading and unloading of bags without expecting any tip. That additional surge price would have been my tip (hence taking corporate riders was part of my bread and butter — they never bothered about the price because the company was paying for it).

Of course, if they did tip extra… I’d hope to get their requests for repeat business. I once had a trip to the airport that resulted in a AU$100 payout for me (1.8x surge on an UberXL trip)— single rider, 2 big luggage bags. I helped her to load and unload her bags, and she tipped an additional AU$20 in cash.

I wished a larger majority of my riders were like that.

Now, as Uber has gone smarter with its pricing, they end up surging the prices higher, with longer wait times as ride requests go unfulfilled… but the driver is surprising earning less as Uber keeps more of the fare for itself after employing a deceptive procedure that decouples the rider’s fare from the driver’s earnings.

As such, we can pick up on one thing here.

The friendly Uber drivers that we may have encountered in the past (with higher base rates) were friendly mainly because they were earning something that they felt was decent for the work that they provided in transporting someone from point to point.

There were also mints and water involved — which I did offer to my surge-paying riders without fail, politely. But when rates are low… can the driver even affotd to purchase mints and water, let alone get their cars serviced or maintained regularly?

It shows that altruism in business does come at a price, unfortunately.

And that’s for a small business. What about the bigger businesses?

Big business altruism

Are the COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers really in for altruism?

Look at the shenanigans that they’re coming up with — dangling freebies for people to get vaccinated, trying to get the teenagers vaccinated at 12–15 years old, even while it is the case that:

Rich nations vaccinating one person every second while majority of the poorest nations are yet to give a single dose.

It’s the same problem with food distribution around the world.

The richer countries tend to waste more food. Why not get the richer countries to cut down their consumption, and the food producers donate all that uneaten food to the poorer countries?

Because the poorer countries can’t pay for it.

Much like how they can’t pay for the vaccines.

Are Big Food and Big Pharma really that altrustic?

They are, only for people who actually can pay for those products.

After all, it’s no surprise that the COVID-19 vaccine products have also spawned NINE new billionaires.

But even then… Pfizer isn’t letting up after having reaped their billions from their vaccine — they claim that a third dose is likely to be necessary.

How much more money would they earn from that?

That goes into the realm of obscene profiteering, unfortunately.

The altruism is only there… when the price is right.

After all, one is only in business when one is making money out of it.

I can’t say that I’m completely altruistic when attempting to decipher various biochemical mechanisms that lead into different types of degenerative diseases that the human body experiences.

After all, I do earn money when Medium subscribers do read my content.

But because I do earn money from this, I am incentivised to continue researching and writing more.

Does all this work give me obscene profits?

No, it doesn’t — unless the article goes viral and I get a million reads on that article or something.

But if Medium readers weren’t interested in their health in the first place, would I even be posting content on Medium, or would I take it to another place where it is appreciated better and where people are willing to pay for my work?

Unfortunately, that is what separates a business mindset from a hobbyist mindset.

Businesses will be altruistic when the price is right.

Are business organisations really truly interested in their corporate social responsibilities, or do they engage in such activities because it gives their brand reputation a much better name?

So that they won’t look like they’re in it for the money when everyone knows that they’re in it for the money?

We do know that, but we don’t want to feel that it is the case, isn’t it?

And therefore I never did divulge to my Uber riders that there was actually a minimum surge multiplier price that I was accepting at specific times of the day. Because why burst their bubble on my supposed altruism?

I wasn’t going to tell my riders that I was hunting them at 2x prices, because that would have hurt my ratings…

But ironically, my ratings started going up as I stopped accepting the lower priced requests, and provided my bend-over-backwards service levels for the people paying top dollar.

Strange way how businesses work, isn’t it? A lot of it has to do with the flow and transfer of money.

When states such as Massachusetts enact laws that ban surge pricing during a state of emergency, such as in this pandemic… would I be out there driving for base rates, or would I just say let someone else do it?

I’d let someone else do it while I find better fish to fry. Such as writing this article on Medium to analyse business behaviours, no?

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Dr Joel Yong

Deconstructing the interconnectedness between health and business. Join my mailing list at http://thethinkingscientist.substack.com or book a one-on-one consultation session with me at https://app.ddichat.com/experts/thethinkingscientist.


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